“Zombifying” Worms Mind Controls Victims With Missing Genes

“Zombifying” Worms Mind Controls Victims With Missing Genes

Zombies have been around for a while. In television series, and movies of course! (Or is it?) Scientists discover “Zombifying” worms in other creatures. Some insects have thread like worms that cause their victims to leap into the water and drown.

Scientists already had a strange understanding of these parasites that resembled spaghetti threads.

Deadly Larvae

The larvae infest terrestrial arthropods like crickets and beetles and develop there for several months before returning to the water to reproduce and deposit eggs. The worms influence the behavior of their hosts to force them to seek water and dive in. The parasites can then swim away after wriggling out of the host’s behind.

Unexpectedly, the worms just became more bizarre.

According to a genetic study, the phylum Nematomorpha, which includes horsehair worms, made an evolutionary detour that cost them around 30% of the genes that are present in all other creatures many millions of years ago.

Missing Genes

The behavior of the worms has been extensively researched, but little is known about their genetic makeup. According to Tauana Cunha, the main author of the study that was published on Tuesday in the journal Current Biology, the team that sequenced the genomes of A. australiensis and N. munidae sought to change that.

Additionally, Cunha started their study as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. She is currently a postdoctoral research scientist at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

However, something was lacking when the researchers compared the genetic data from their horsehair worms to that of other species.

“There’s a given set of genes that are expected to be found across animal groups,” she said. “It’s used as a metric for the quality of your genome.” The same group of genes — about 200 in all — was absent from both horsehair worm species, suggesting that this was a genomic quirk in the group rather than a data error.

These genes control the cellular level growth of brief, hair-like structures known as cilia, which are also found in certain plants and fungi as well as in single-celled creatures called protists. Cilia serve as sensors, aid in cell movement, filter microorganisms, and collect trash.